It wasn’t that long ago, before the pervasive and cumulative powers of the Internet, social networking and mobile media began to transform the meeting industry in astonishingly short order, that destination marketing meant a well-rehearsed sales pitch from a DMO (a.k.a. CVB) or a slick Meeting Planning Guide in the mail. Today, however, destination marketing has taken on much more dimension — and that includes not just how a destination sells itself to meeting planners, but how planners, in turn, sell it to attendees.
At the moment, however, it’s still the Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) that have the most to gain — or lose.
“Meeting planners nowadays don’t have to be as reliant as they once were on CVBs for marketing information, especially before the meeting,” says Tom Martin, founder and principal of New Orleans-based digital marketing firm Converse Digital, which launched a Digital Strategy Practice customized for DMOs in 2011. “The key factor has been that there is so much information available from so many sources other than the CVBs in today’s digital world.”
But at the same time, Martin notes, the information-gathering process is time-consuming for planners constantly being tasked to do more with less. Therein, he says, lies the current opportunity for innovative DMOs to regain the high ground when it comes to tactical and logistical assistance. “And that’s why progressive CVBs are beginning to curate current destination information and provide it in a digital manner,” Martin says, “so that planners can just pull that information directly into their own marketing materials and push it right through to attendees in an almost frictionless way.”
Cara Bergeson, conference manager at Portland, OR-based industrial business publisher Resource Recycling, agrees that such progressive services from DMOs offer distinct benefits to planners. The key to success for her and her attendees, she says, is a broader and more personalized sense of a destination. “I rely on a CVB to really learn what a city is about,” says Bergeson, who plans three major voluntary-attendance conferences a year that draw as many as 1,400 attendees and 140 exhibitors. “I want the CVB to really show me what my attendees can do in their city.”
And, she adds, because she has been getting just such in-depth insights from Orlando, she has brought one of her major conferences there five times since 2003, and also is booked in Orlando for September 2013. “The reason that kind of support is so important to me,” Bergeson says, “is that our attendees are very social, so having a city that offers good restaurants and bars and other activities is very important to us. But all destinations, even second-tier destinations, have restaurants and bars and attractions. The difference to me is between being left to your own devices to learn what those are and how individual ones might benefit your meeting, versus being given an in-depth portrait of the city, from the very beginning of the process.” The real practical benefits to her, she says, are a less stressful planning process and a more productive, enjoyable experience for attendees.
And by that measure, she says, “Orlando is probably hands-down the best CVB I have ever worked with. They know the city inside and out. But they also take the time to get to know me as a planner and what my meeting is really about and what my attendees are looking for. And in my experience, that extra level of knowledge and service is fairly unusual.”
Mark Champa, director of meetings and events at H&R Block in Kansas City, MO, enjoyed such comprehensive service when he booked his first-ever major meeting in New Orleans. “The role of the CVB and the hospitality community in general was definitely one of the influences on and benefits of our selection of New Orleans as the destination for our annual conference, which draws 3,000 attendees,” says Champa, who plans 35-40 meetings a year across the U.S.
“With the growing number of restaurants and the different price points that are available in New Orleans,” Champa says, “the CVB has really done an excellent job — both through their website and also through various forms of electronic communication — of giving us information we could take advantage of via our own convention website. So, rather than having to go out and research activities and all of the things that would be going on while we were there, including new restaurants and popular attractions and activities, we were able to tap into the CVB’s site to provide links to our attendees. And as they provided updated information, we passed that new information on to our attendees. The CVB just made it very easy for us to get the most up-to-date information to our attendees so they could plan their free time. That’s critical to us for our annual conference, because it’s an opportunity for all of our people to get together once a year and network among themselves, as well as with our vendor partners. So knowing as much as possible about what there is to do in the destination is very important to the overall success of the meeting.”
Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of convention sales and services for Visit Orlando, is a prominent team member of one of the most innovative and effective DMOs in the country, especially when it comes to selling Orlando as a premier meetings destination. And she notes one simple but powerful secret to success. “The DMOs that are truly more successful than others today,” she says, “are those that have a history or a track record of working with the entire community as a whole. In Orlando, we have been doing that for a number of years. It has become a major focus for us whether we’re going after a major trade show-type event or a conference or a meeting. No matter what kind of meeting it is, if it’s a major event that we really want to pursue, we believe in getting the entire community involved, because we believe that enhances our chances of success for landing and hosting that meeting.”
She cites one major example from 2010. “We were working on a major meeting that involved a large number of attendees and a large number of exhibitors,” she says. “And there was a lot of competition among major destinations to get that meeting. And we could not have achieved the success that we did without working with the entire community as a whole. What that meant was that when we went to meet with the hosts and planners of the meeting, we brought a number of people with us, including a county commissioner, a representative of the mayor’s office, and a top local business executive in the company’s industry. We also brought our chairman and the vice-president/general manager of one of our major hotels, the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress. And we even went so far as to bring in a major food critic who could talk about Orlando as a culinary destination.”
For another meeting, a large healthcare conference, Visit Orlando leveraged the city’s growing medical infrastructure and brought in representatives of Florida Hospital and Orlando Health to explain the unique benefits that Orlando offers to medical and healthcare meetings.
The essential point, Runzler says, is to bring more scope and context to a destination’s selling proposition. “I can talk about the number of hotel rooms and our infrastructure and what we deliver for a major meeting,” she says. “But what I think really sells a destination today is an integrated community all singing from the same hymnal. And part of that is showing that a range of representatives of the community are all in tune with each other when it comes to showing what we can deliver for a meeting. And the other point is to bring in real experts to make important points about what sets a particular destination apart. It’s also one thing for me to talk about the culinary scene in Orlando. It’s another thing entirely for a recognized food critic to explain what the city has to offer. And for a meeting today, the quality and diversity of the food in a destination is an important part of a meeting, whether that’s a dine-around program or it’s a matter of attendees entertaining their colleagues or clients.”
Closely related to such efforts, Runzler says — and a key benefit to planners whose meetings are voluntary in attendance, such as conferences for independent salespeople or customers — is a synergistic ability to help build attendance.
Nikki Moon, vice president of convention sales at the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, agrees. “That is more important now than ever,” she says, “and for many clients that is an expensive and time-consuming process, so we have come to be known for doing a lot of that for them. We’re their right arm in terms of creating marketing tools and making the meeting a success.”
Moon preaches a doctrine of well-organized, community-based marketing efforts. “Today,” she says, “a good CVB is an important part of a company’s meetings department. And there are still a lot of planners who don’t realize that 99 percent of our services are complimentary.”
Moreover, Moon says, such comprehensive services, based on the most current information available, such as new restaurants or a particular attraction that will offer something special during a meeting’s dates, are especially important for a destination as diverse as New Orleans, whose broad culture and distinct individual neighborhoods require an education for planners. Given that, Moon says, the CVB works hard to match the destination to the needs of a particular meeting, then merchandises what it has to offer via micro-websites or electronic newsletters that keep attendees informed.
Although there are CVBs that are creating genuine innovation when it comes to marketing, the next great frontier will be innovative use of digital marketing and social media to drive attendee interest in and benefit from a destination before and during the meeting, says Martin.
“But at this point,” he says, “I would also say that even the most progressive CVBs that are doing it have only begun to scratch the surface. Right now, the innovation we’re seeing among CVBs is really around platforms and execution. So they’re curating information or bundling it at a platform level, like a website or a blog that a meeting planner can point to. But the reason they’ve only scratched the surface is that they’re not yet far enough along in the process to think behaviorally about a meeting attendee. They haven’t begun to really think about a meeting attendee’s behavior toward information, both in terms of searching for it and using it, and how that behavior changes through the entire lifecycle of a meeting — from when they’re making plans to go until they’re in the destination. And then there is the ‘day after’ or post-meeting piece, which is the big thing that no one is really looking at yet. And that ‘after the meeting’ piece represents an opportunity for destinations to convert attendees who have just left there into ambassadors for the destination.”
So, Martin says, CVBs and planners should not only be thinking about the most effective ways to get information out to attendees, they should also be thinking about truly creating memorable, exceptional experiences for attendees. “That means CVBs should be working with planners to really create those little memorable moments and experiences that attendees can’t wait to tell others about via social channels and when they get home,” Martin explains. “And that goes beyond doing the obvious things, such as going to Preservation Hall or Acme Oyster House in New Orleans. You have to go deeper into the destination than that, because those kinds of things are at the typical expectation of a tourist level. You have to help them discover ‘what’s around the corner.’ ”
To get to the next level of deriving maximum enjoyment from a destination, he says, “you have to understand that in a place like New Orleans, around every corner is some little mom and pop restaurant that the locals all know about, but tourists don’t. Take them in and let them have oysters in an oyster bar that isn’t so well known. Or better yet, take them somewhere that can teach them how to shuck oysters. Or take them to a local crawfish boil that is authentic. It’s about doing things that really allow people to attend something that is truly local and not the kind of things that tourists or meeting attendees normally do. The idea is to give attendees experiences that most people will never have.”
In order to get to that level of individualized experience, Martin encourages truly forward-thinking CVBs and planners to embrace what he calls “the power of random.” And that’s because random experiences are where real memories are created, he says.
For example, Martin relates, instead of a traditional dine-around program that features the best-known tourist restaurants in a given city, give attendees the freedom to go out on their own, in small groups, and find their own memorable dining experiences where they’ll encounter locals instead of other visitors. Maybe even recruit locals to guide these mini-tours.
And such genuine innovation requires courage, Martin says. “The idea of random scares the hell out of people, including meeting planners,” he says. “And that is especially true of marketers, because we’ve been taught for 50 years to plan every aspect of what we’re doing.”
But once embraced, he says, social media can be used to aggregate enthusiasm for a particular place or activity and empower attendees to get together and participate with tremendous enthusiasm.
On yet another level, Martin says, the ever-increasing use of mobile media will be used to help meeting attendees have a better experience in the destination. As a result, CVBs and planners will soon come to realize that mobile platforms provide a new world of opportunities for enhancing the meeting experience. “It’s a conduit to an end-user experience,” Martin says.
For example, he predicts, the smartest and most innovative CVBs — or planners — will learn to use mobile technology to create a mobile-based wayfinder program around the convention center or hotel. And that information will be delivered simply and clearly via mobile platforms such as smartphones before and during the meeting. It will be like having a personal city guide (a person not a book) in your pocket.
Another example: In a destination such as New York, where there are not many restaurants within walking distance of the Javits Center, a mobile app could show attendees where to get a taxi — and where the best restaurants are for the lowest fare. Or where to get a subway train and which one to take to get to and from the hotel.
Yet another example: at a major conference, provide a mobile platform listing of where all of the evening’s social events are and how to best get there including maps, key contact information and maybe even the ability to have your ticket (if required) saved on your phone.
“That’s the kind of information that needs to be focused on in the future,” Martin says, because that really enhances the meeting experience from a purely practical point of view.”
Although he knows of no CVB actively doing those kinds of things, or helping planners do them, Martin predicts that such innovation will really start to gain momentum in 2013 and become a relatively common practice over the next 18 months. “You’re going to see a couple of really smart, innovative CVBs leverage the first mover advantage of digital innovation to capture the minds and business of meeting planners before the rest of the industry figures it out,” says Martin.
As destination marketing becomes more innovative, it is really the attendees who will benefit most, everyone agrees. “Eighty percent of our attendees are men, so they are interested in steak houses and bars and the best golf courses,” says Bergeson, who agrees that such information on what’s best or new and hot in the destination will become more and more important to attendees. And like many other planners, she is now looking to have social media play more of a role in getting that information to attendees — before and during the meeting.
“A lot of our attendees are not familiar with a particular destination for a particular meeting,” she says. “So they rely on me and my team to know what’s really going on. And I rely on the CVB. In that sense, a good CVB today is like a concierge service.”
And in turn, she is using social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as an electronic newsletter and a message board during the conference, to keep attendees informed and excited about what there is to do in the destination. And, she also concurs, such proactive marketing is also helping to drive stronger attendance.
And for DMOs, Runzler says, there is also new reality. “As a DMO, we no longer control the brand identity of our destination,” she says. “In the era of social media, that control is in the hands of planners and attendees. Our brand is being shaped now by those who use the destination and communicate that experience, not what we say about it. So, that fact also makes it more important than ever that we do everything we can to make sure that planners and attendees have a good time in the destination. Now our goal is to turn every meeting planner and attendee into a brand ambassador.” C&IT